Centuries of Seduction
by Jill Blackmon
"I did not have sexual relations with that woman" (qtd. in Washington Post). President Bill Clinton’s infamous denial of an extramarital affair with a young intern will forever mar the accomplishments of his eight-year presidential administration. While one might marvel at the fact that a trivial matter like the private seduction of one man might cause such catastrophic repercussions, a quick glance into history confirms the existence of such cataclysmic consequences due to temptresses throughout the ages. Whether fictional or factual, accounts of women’s wiles and their effects on virtuous men have long been a source of public interest, as revealed in several time-tried classic literary works from the Ancient World, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.
Of all the surviving ancient classic literary works, the Bible stands as the most widely read and recognized. In the biblical story of Joseph there exists one of the earliest references to the attempts of a female to seduce a virtuous man. The story hinges on the fact that Joseph, a man of God, resides as a dutiful servant in the Egyptian home of Potiphar, an officer of Pharoah. As Joseph’s authority increases in the household, he catches the eye of Potiphar’s lustful wife, who requests of Joseph, "‘Lie with me’" (Genesis 39:7). Joseph, virtuous in the sight of God and loyal to his master, refuses the temptress. Irate, the wife reports to her men: "‘He came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice: and it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled, and got him out’" (Genesis 39:14). With these words, Potiphar’s wife begins a game in which men throughout the ages unknowingly entangle themselves, one in which, "a woman makes vain overtures to a man and then accuses him of attempting to force her." In fact, "The motif remains a popular one in many literatures and folklores. The appeal of the tale seems to be universal, and it appears in cultures that have no demonstrable links to the scriptural monotheisms" (Goldman 31). Due to the schemes of Potiphar’s seductive spouse, Joseph spends the next several years imprisoned in Egypt, earning his place among men of every era who suffer the consequences of the vindictive temptation of the female.
While the art of seduction seems to emerge in the literature of the ancient world, the masterpieces of the Middle Ages hold their share of fiery females as well. In a twelfth-century lay by Marie de France entitled Lanval, the spirit of Potiphar’s wife resurfaces. Lanval, a virtuous knight in King Arthur’s court, faces his own seductress when he encounters the queen of the land, presumably the classic Arthurian character Guinevere. The queen, ignorant of Lanval’s secret pledge of loyalty to a fairy-lover, approaches Lanval with her own seductive invocation: "‘Lanval, I have honored, cherished and loved you much. You may have all my love: just tell me what you desire! I grant you my love and you should be glad to have me" (de France 1173). Lanval’s pointed refusal ignites Guinevere’s rage, leading her to slander the virtuous knight with an accusation of homosexuality. Lanval defensively responds to the queen’s allegation with an inadvertent mention of his secret fairy-lover, whom he claims ‘should be prized above all others I know’" (de France 1173).
Unfortunately, the queen’s wrath does not cease after one outrageous accusation. Lanval so incites Guinevere’s anger that she fabricates yet another change against the worth knight, telling the king that Lanval "had requited her love and because she had refused him, had insulted and deeply humiliated her" (de France 1173). Thus, Lanval joins Joseph in his downfall, standing wrongfully accused by the imaginative tales of a scheming seductress. Even in the Middle Ages, "Stories like this are common, a shameless woman propositions a man and is rebuffed and takes her revenge by accusing him of trying to seduce her" (Brians).
Although the intentionally evil female stands accountable for much of the downfall of virtuous man, the literature of the Renaissance sheds new light on the male mindset contributing to such seduction. Francis Petrarch, a forerunner to the later Renaissance literary masters, exemplifies that outlook in his Sonnets. A collection of love poems dedicated almost solely to the subject of a woman named Laura, the Sonnets at once reveal both Petrarch’s raves in an almost idolatrous manner, stating that Laura "did not walk in any mortal way, / But with angelic progress; when she spoke, / Unearthly voices sang in unison. / She seemed divine among the dreary folk / Of earth . . ." (90.9-13). However, Petrarch seems to reprimand his own impure thoughts when he pleads with the Father in heaven: "Pity the abject plight where I am found; / Return my straying thoughts to a nobler place; / Show them this day you were on Calvary" (62.12-14).
Throughout the Sonnets, Petrarch blames the temptation of the mysterious Laura for his mind’s wanderings from the virtuous pathway to Heaven. He never once attributes his own lustful mindset to his distraction from religious duty. A biographical account of Petrarch’s life states: "There at church on Good Friday in 1327, he first saw Laura, a married Frenchwoman whose name he immortalized in his poems and who inspired him with a passion that has become proverbial for its constancy and purity" (Francesco). Perhaps his passion remains constant, but the purity of Petrarch’s lust for an unknowing married woman is questionable. In Petrarch’s Secretum, his dear friend St. Augustine "argues against [Petrarch’s] carnal love of Laura," suggesting "many things he could do in order to overcome his lustful love of Laura" (Bernardo 26). Petrarch, however, mindfully chooses the path of immortality. Although Laura never intentionally entices Petrarch with her beauty, Petrarch initiates his own religious criticism through constant meditation on the unattainable temptress.
Throughout time, the allure of the female has tugged at the conscience of virtuous man, acting as a hindrance to his steadfast path of righteousness. From the ancient biblical account to the wily wife of Potiphar, through the medieval narrative of Guinevere’s falsehoods, and on to the early Renaissance chronicle of the elusive Laura, the female has long been the righteous man’s source of downfall. In a modern world where the sexual trysts of a young intern can disrupt the course of world events, these literary passages offer little evolutionary hope for man’s escape from his perpetual hindrance to heaven: the tantalizing temptress.
Bernardo, Aldo. "Scipio vs. Laura: ‘From Young Leaves to Garlands."
Modern Critical Views:
Brians, Paul. "The lais of Marie de France." Love in the Arts.
17 May 2001. 18 Nov. 2004.
de France, Marie. Lanval. Lawall, et al. 1: 1170-1176.
"Francesco Petrarch." World Eras, Vol. 1: European Renaissance
and Reformation (1235-1600).
Goldman, Shalom. The Wiles of Women/The Wiles of Men: Joseph and
Potiphar’s Wife in Ancient
Lawall, Sarah, et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of World
Masterpieces. 2 Vols. New York: Norton,
"Washingtonpost.com Special Report: Clinton Accused."
Washingtonpost.com. 26 January 1998. 17
This essay was written by Jill Blackmon, then a sophomore in English. It was written for Dr. Marsha Mathews’ ENGL 2111 class during fall 2004 semester.